I was in the fourth grade the first time I remember celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year. My dad let me and my brother stay home from school that day to celebrate. If he’d made this great academic concession any earlier in my life, I don’t recall. But I do remember that we had a long-distance call with our Iranian relatives, four goldfish swimming around in our kitchen and that we tried to balance an egg. According to a myth that transcends geography, eggs will balance vertically only on the vernal equinox – the first day of spring – which is the day the new year is celebrated, falling on Sunday, March 20, this year.
I don’t remember if it worked. And – fun fact – eggs can balance vertically any day, not just on the equinox. But it was a magical taste of mythology. As an adult, my passion for my heritage has deepened. I host Nowruz parties now, where I make food and I invite friends and we eat it together. Every culture has its special ethnic food and traditions, and the sharing of them makes that culture more accessible. I would invite you all to my Nowruz party this year if I could, but since I can’t, I will tell you everything I can about it here instead.
If you think about it, celebrating the new year on the first day of spring makes way more sense than Jan. 1. Spring means warmth, rejuvenation and rebirth. Jan. 1 reminds me there are at least two full months of snow potential still ahead. The Zoroastrian practitioners of the ancient days in the Middle East who came up with the rituals now used to celebrate Nowruz knew what was up.
There are several preliminary rituals undertaken before the actual Nowruz. These rituals transcend culture in many ways – for example, there’s the practice of khane takani, which literally means to shake the house, and is more familiarly known as spring cleaning. You’re also supposed to greet the new year by purchasing and wearing all new clothes. (I am very good at this.) You also must grow sabzeh (sprouted lentils or wheatgrass) about 10-ish days before Nowruz. (I am not great at this, because there is a definite art to it, but I try almost every year.)
Thirteen days after Nowruz, on sizdah bedar, you join all the Iranians in your given tri-state region for a massive picnic in a park. Everyone brings all the food that’s possible to transport, and eats together, al fresco, celebrating for hours. It is on this day, too, that you’re supposed to toss the sabzeh you grew into a moving body of water. (I’ve never done this, but I have thrown the sabzeh into my garbage after I forgot about it for several weeks and it got kind of moldy. It was taken away by Rumpke, so that feels similar.)
The most special of the Nowruz rituals is that of setting your “sofreh haft seen.” This is the table of seven S’s. The seven objects that start with the letter “s” symbolize some pretty wonderful things one hopes the new year will bring with it. First, there’s seeb, which means apple and symbolizes beauty. I like to buy the prettiest, reddest apple I can find. Next up is the aforementioned sabzeh, symbolizing rebirth and growth. (Because I forgot to get my sabzeh going this year, I subbed in green shamrock from Kroger, which actually works, because Nowruz is just days after St. Patrick’s Day.)
Seer means garlic, which symbolizes health and medicine. Samanu is Persian wheat germ pudding, and it symbolizes power and strength. Wheat germ pudding might not sound the most appealing, but trust me, it’s creamy and not too sweet. (Not that it should be eaten from the sofreh haft seen. You leave the haft seen contents alone, much like you leave Santa’s cookies in peace.) The spice sumac represents the sunrise, and serkeh, or vinegar, represents patience. I’ve saved the most exotic of the seven for last: you’re supposed to have senjed, or the dried fruit of the oleaster plant (Russian olive), to represent love.
Your haft seen can be as elaborate or as minimalist as you want. There are some extras that don’t all start with S in Persian that nearly everyone throws on their table, too: hyacinth, coins, eggs, books, candles, goldfish, a mirror. I like a healthy mix of all the fun stuff. (I never do the goldfish because I don’t want to forget about it until it’s floating upside down – death is, like, the opposite of Nowruz.)
There’s one last big preparation ritual on the Tuesday night before Nowruz, called chaharshanbe suri. On this night, people gather in the darkness to perform a ritualistic cleansing by jumping over a fire. The idea is to burn away the bad stuff from the year before and take a spark of life from the fire into the new year. You’re supposed to sing a chant as you jump over, which, loosely translated, means, “My paleness I give to you, give me your warmth.”
We didn’t celebrate chaharshanbe suri when I was a kid, because kids and fire are a recipe for disaster. As an adult, I gather my friends and neighbors in the waning light of the last Tuesday before Nowruz. We get a fire going in my building’s fire pit, and then we jump over it. If it sounds dangerous, well, that’s because it is. But it’s also very fun.
Anyway, it’s finally time to talk about food. Persian food is absolutely delicious, and what sets it apart from other cuisines is that it isn’t spicy but, rather, flavorful. The centerpiece dish for me, for any Persian party, is gormeh sabzi, an herb stew with lamb (or beef) and kidney beans, served on steaming basmati rice. If there’s not a layer of oil from the mingled flavors glistening on top of the gormeh sabzi after it has simmered away in a crockpot for at least six hours, I don’t want it. It’s not a particularly pretty dish, but it does taste amazing. I’ve included my own version of the recipe for you, if you want to give it a try. This isn’t necessarily a Nowruz dish, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find any Iranian celebration without it.
You’ll also be hard-pressed to find one without a steaming mound of rice. It’s made in a rice cooker, but I’ve learned, after several years of being lazy, that the secret to really awesome tasting rice is rinsing it until the water runs clear before popping it in the cooker.
To get the incredible Iranian tahdig, or crispy brown rice crust, you poke a hole in the center of the rice about halfway through (the rice cooker I have is timed at 60 minutes) and drizzle in a little olive or vegetable oil. Then lay two paper towels or one dish towel under the lid and put it back on the cooker. The towel catches more of the moisture so you have the most perfectly done rice. Other Nowruz dishes include an incredible herb and noodle soup, called ash reshteh, and kuku sabzi, which is basically like an herb frittata.
My favorite thing about Nowruz is how joyful it feels. I think back on all the Nowruz celebrations I can remember and how they’re filled with loved ones and amazing food, and I reflect on how lucky I am – this year, especially. Even without goldfish.
- It’s also customary on Nowruz for kids to receive money from their parents, and usually via crispy new bills. Or Venmo from my dad. Thanks, Dad!
- You can say “eide shoma mobarak” or “Nowruz mobarak” to wish someone a happy New Year.
- I’m hosting 30-ish people with my boyfriend this year! Biggest Nowruz I’ve done yet!
- Now, the recipe!
Ghormeh Sabzi: American Kid Version 😉
Inspired by kitchen FaceTimes with my dad and Samin Nosrat’s NYT Cooking recipe.
What you need
2 packages of beef stew meat (already pre-cut, can find at any grocery store)
3 bunches flat-leaf parsley
3 bunches cilantro
2 bunches chives/scallions
1 tablespoon dried fenugreek leaves (can find at an Indian or Middle Eastern market in a box)
1 15-ounce can dark red kidney beans
1 large yellow onion, diced
Extra virgin olive oil or vegetable oil
2 teaspoons (or more) turmeric
1. Dice the onion and fry in a deep wide pan with 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, on medium-high, for about 6 minutes.
2. Take the stew meat (I like to chop it up even smaller so there’s more in every bite, but this is optional) and add it to the pan. Season with turmeric, salt and black pepper. I never measure spices, but use a healthy amount of turmeric and a little less salt and pepper. If you need measurements, try 2 teaspoons turmeric, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper.
3. You don’t have to get all the meat super brown, because it will get too tough, and it will finish cooking in the crockpot anyway. After you’ve cooked the stew meat and onion mixture for about 15 minutes, turn off the burner and let the mixture sit there while you do the herbs in the next step.
4. Take all the herb bunches and wash them, then dry them well. Then remove the leaves from the stems. This takes some time. The stems are not good in the stew. After you accumulate all the leaves, you’ll have green hands and a ton of leaves. Chop them all up super fine.
5. Put the herbs in a separate pan with a tablespoon or so of oil. Fry them up! They’ll reduce down a TON in size and volume. (You don’t want too much oil or it’ll get mushy.) You want to end up with a kind of mush, more dry than wet. Crumble in the fenugreek. Stir and keep an eye on the pile. It takes about 15-20 minutes. Another recipe says to push on the heap of herbs with the back of a spoon and you’ll see a green oil released. That means it’s ready.
6. Take everything and put it into the crockpot. Add two cups of water. I add a little more salt and pepper and give it a good stir. Let it cook on high for 3 hours and then low for another 6 hours or more. I have left the crockpot on low overnight and it’s perfect in the morning. You can check and see if it’s too thick or too watery. Always start with less water, just two cups. If it’s too thick, you can add more water later.
7. There should be a nice oily layer on top when you open the lid. This is the good stuff. Stir it all up. Add in the can of kidney beans. I usually use two cans, but it’s your preference. Some recipes call for adding dried Persian limes. You can find these at a Middle Eastern/Indian market or from Amazon. I use them sparingly: cut one open (be careful) and scrape out some of the preserved pith and toss that in.
8. Lastly, enjoy! You can 100% do this! 💕🙌✨🌱
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism